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Date of Issue: February 13, 2008

Recession worries: not on Anna Maria Island. Tourism up 36 percent

If many people are staying home this winter worried about a U.S. or global recession, they’re not staying away from Anna Maria Island.

The first hint that the tourism slump of the past three years might be over came in December 2007 when The Islander (Dec. 26 issue) reported that occupancy rates for Island accommodations had increased six consecutive months from June to November compared with the same period in 2006.

Now, it appears the flow of visitors to Anna Maria Island - and the entire Bradenton area - might turn into a flood.

The Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau reported overall occupancy of Island accommodations for January 2008 hit 41.5 percent, a gain of 36.5 percent when compared with the dismal 30.4 percent occupancy rate for January 2007.

If that upswing is any indication, expect Island tourism in February and March to exceed all projections, perhaps even set an occupancy record.

For February 2007, Island occupancy was at 70 percent, while in March of the same year, it stood at 84.7 percent. Should the current trend continue, occupancy might surpass 90 percent in either February or March.

It’s no surprise that a large number of Island visitors this season are from Canada and overseas markets in Europe.

The CVB has done a number of travel shows in Europe, has an excellent public relations firm and the favorable exchange rate has really helped Island tourism, noted Susan Estler of the CVB.

Just last year, Canadians got about 80 cents on the dollar as an exchange rate. Canadian dollar now is an even exchange for the U.S. dollar, making a Florida winter vacation more affordable - and attractive - for northern visitors.

Likewise for the Europe, a market where the CVB put on a number of travel shows during 2007. It appears now that the marketing campaign is paying off.

 Quite a few Island accommodation owners have reported an influx of British and European visitors this winter, with more than two months remaining in the season.

A lot of credit goes to the favorable exchange rate and advertising in Europe, said Tom Buehler of Haley’s Motel in Holmes Beach.

Just 18 months ago, Europeans were getting 70 cents for each euro on the exchange rate, and the British pound was exchanged at a most unfavorable $1.40 per pound.

Things have certainly changed in just a year. One euro fetches $1.45 on the exchange, while the British pound is worth nearly $2.

Although a weak U.S. dollar might be bad for American factories, it’s good news for tourism and real estate sales on Anna Maria Island.

“We’re a ‘good value’ vacation for Europeans,” said Estler, “and they are learning quite a bit about us because of the travel shows.”

At a recent show in Ireland, the CVB temporarily ran out of brochures due to heavy demand by the Irish.

“They are looking for a family-oriented vacation spot where they can relax after going to DisneyWorld and we are ideal,” said Estler.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce executive director Mary Ann Brockman agreed that the Island had a rush of visitors in January, in large measure thanks to the favorable exchange rate.

“We’re also getting a lot of calls from Europe asking for information. It’s fantastic,” she said.

For January, the chamber sent out 1,012 travel packages in response to e-mails from out-of-state, Brockman observed. “That’s likely a record. We’ve been extremely busy. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed after the last three years,” she added, knocking on wood.

“It’s certainly pleasing to see our trade show efforts are paying off,” concluded Estler.

At a time when the man-made attractions of Orlando are reporting a downturn in tourism and recession fears seem to grip a large portion of the United States, Anna Maria Island appears to be in the midst of a tourism upswing.

“Let’s keep it going through February and March,” said Brockman.